After following in the late thespian's footsteps with his own adaptations of "Henry V," "Hamlet" and "Sleuth," Branagh has scored an Oscar nomination for playing the man himself in "My Week with Marilyn."
The 51-year-old Belfast native told reporters in New York recently he is flattered by comparisons to Olivier.
"But I think you couldn't help but fall short," he admitted.
"It also was the fate of good people like Anthony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi and other generations [of actors] as an indication of just how remarkable Olivier's position was," noted Branagh, who directed last year's blockbuster "Thor." "[Olivier] just was THE actor. He was the world's greatest and most famous actor and he dominated in that position for so long that if you ever remotely went near a part that he played before, you were compared to him -- usually unfavorably, inevitably. But I decided to just be flattered and then get on with it."
He then recalled the "strange moment" when "My Week with Marilyn" director Simon Curtis approached him about laying to rest "that particular ghost by kind of going at it head-on and actually playing him in a script that took him seriously, not only as a performer, but as a person.
"That's how I got over it," he added.
The movie is based on "The Prince, The Showgirl and Me" and "My Week with Marilyn," the memoirs of Colin Clark, an assistant on the 1957 film "The Prince and the Showgirl."
"Marilyn" tells the unlikely, but supposedly true, story of how Clark squired Hollywood screen icon Marilyn Monroe around England when she was there shooting "Showgirl," much to the frustration of Olivier, who was co-starring in and directing the movie.
Michelle Williams earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the vivacious, insecure, unpredictable sex symbol, while Eddie Redmayne plays Clark and Julia Ormond plays Olivier's actress wife, Vivien Leigh. The cast also includes Jacobi, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Toby Jones, Zoe Wanamaker, Dominic Cooper and Dougray Scott.
"My Week with Marilyn" was largely shot in Pinewood Studios where "Showgirl" was filmed.
Asked at the press conference what he discovered about Olivier in preparing to play him, Branagh said, "I think so much of it was sort of surprising, really, once you got under the skin of it all. …
"There is a series of on-set photographs, which was very interesting to me, half of which show Olivier concentrating and directing the film. I've seen [Curtis] look like that and I've experienced looking like that, where there is nothing else in the world. And everyone says, 'Are you alright?' and you're just concentrating. Half of the pictures were like that, but then half of them are like of Olivier as a kid by the camera, looking at Marilyn with his jaw open, just like a kid on Christmas morning," said Branagh, famous for the films "Dead Again," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," "Rabbit Proof Fence," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Valkyrie," as well as TV's "Shackleton," "Conspiracy," "Warm Springs" and "Wallander."
Branagh said he thinks the ability to access an inner child-like quality helps make one a good performer.
"It means you're completely in the moment. When you're upset, you're fully upset. All of you. When you're happy, you are deliriously, fulsomely happy," he offered. "When I was a kid and I worked with Judi Dench for the first time, that's what I observed in her, this capacity to be wholly and completely in the moment. And, in these pictures of Olivier, that's what I was surprised by. That whatever the grand master of the English theater he was, he was also a kid with a train set, loving it. Just loving it and actually being really impressed and bewildered by how [Monroe] did it, being really fascinated by it. So, whatever masks he then put on and sort of covered up, he basically was a guy who loved what he was doing."
"My Week with Marilyn" is in theaters now.